Hacking Gender Power: An Introduction

How is gender domination reproduced? This seemingly simple question has exercised the minds of feminists, Marxists, queers, and postcolonials over the past hundred years and more, and remains a question of crucial political importance for feminist organizing the world over. In these short posts, I aim to tackle this weighty problem through another:

In what ways is hacking a feminist practice?

But, then, which hacking?

The long-standing critique of gender domination that has emerged from materialist feminist practice, policy, and scholarship has taken special aim at the structures of exclusion and logistics of disempowerment that constitute the infrastructures of contemporary digital or algorithm-based technologies. In the era of ubiquitous mobile computing the everyday-ness of technology has become part of the habits of societies structured in different kinds of domination and exploitation: computer code increasingly undergirds and ramifies hierarchies that long pre-existed digital technologies. Sexual harassment, racial bullying, and the exploitation of labour have all been re-vitalised-while-morphing, as it were, in digital capitalist ecologies that fold in Facebook, Big Data, and marketing-focused crowd sourcing together with different neurological and algorithmic processes. Central to these processes and formations are questions of women’s access to resources (who gets to [learn] code?), habits of registration (what switches on when gendered subjects login?) and gender normativity (how do we perform new technological fetishes in a time of the re-normalization of rape?).

What are the material infrastructures and social practices that reproduce specifically gender domination in algorithmic capital? The recent work on gender, sexuality, and embodied habit is important here; this growing body of scholarship has asked, through what techno-perceptual assemblages or ecologies do habituations form and contribute to capital accumulation, dispossession of the commons, and neoliberal depoliticisation? Reverse engineering these habituated processes gives us a clue as to the potential of collective movements to militate, refuse, revolt, and even overthrow different forms of domination that articulate gender and technology with race, sexuality, and class. In all these questions, domestic (familial, household, kinship, affective) labor continues to be an active site of struggle for feminist organising, and contemporary digital technologies can potentialise these struggles in unexpected ways. Indeed, the networked activism of feminists organizing for social and economic justice will be a parallel focus of these posts.

The reproduction of gender domination happens in ways that are subtle, complex, and indirect but also violent, ideological, and direct. In postcolonial contexts such as India or South Africa, where different capitalist infrastructures of social reproduction have developed in negotiation with histories of nationalist anti-colonial masculinism, Euro-racism, and indigenous refusals/revolts, the question of who can hack what is already a question of power hierarchies, unequal access to money and monopoly rents (licensing), the corporatization of everyday life, and property ownership and labour conditions. These are the kinds of relations, ecologies, processes, and struggles that will form the ongoing concerns of these posts.


(Image Credit: Autonomous Tech Fetish)

Rohith Vemula: The rot of caste privilege and the price of a Dalit scholar’s life

Rohith Vemula

Rohith Vemula was the leader of a Dalit student organization, Ambedkar Student Association at the University of Hyderabad. He was a bright student on a scholarship in a prestigious PhD program, interested in science studies. His coursework complete, he had just received approval for his research proposal. His dream was to become a science writer like Carl Sagan.

Because of a complaint by the rival, right-wing student association ABVP’s leader N. Susheel Kumar, that he had been assaulted by Rohith and his friends, Rohith had become the target of three different investigations by local neighborhood police and the university. Starting in September 2015, the Union Minister for Human Resources Office had written three letters to the university pressuring them to take action against Rohith and four other ASA members. One faculty member asked, why these investigations about a minor student-student altercation were so drawn out: why was it not settled swiftly? After all, the doctor who examined the claim to assault by the ABVP student said he had one small bruise on his body and did not show any signs of assault.

The altercation was politicized from the start. The ABVP is allied to the RSS, an extremist Hindu nationalist organization popular with upper-caste Hindu communities, whose political arm is the BJP (the political party currently in power in India). India’s largest student union, the ABVP has in recent years been known for disrupting campus dialogue on Kashmir (Pune), secularism, and, at Rohith’s campus, the ASA’s screening of a film on Hindu-Muslim riots in Muzaffarnagar in north India. The scuffle involved both ABVP and ASA students when the latter had demanded an apology for the disruption. Only five ASA students were singled out and suspended in August 2015 by the university.

Subject to three institutional investigations, suspended from the university for seven months while these were ongoing, Rohith’s situation kept worsening. His scholarship was withheld for these seven months, a terrible financial hardship for him and his poor family, which earlier subsided largely on his mother’s daily wage labor of sewing and tailoring. Following three letters from the Ministry of Human Resource Development urging action against these five students, on 16 December 2015, these student-activists were expelled from their dorm, and barred from entering administrative buildings and shared spaces on campus, such as the library. This institutionalized discriminatory treatment in the very educational institution that is supposed to enshrine equal and democratic rights, was part of his long experience of discrimination, “in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.” As he wrote in his suicide note, “Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made of star dust.”

Denied dignity and human rights, Rohith and the four other expelled students launched a 14-day sleep-in strike to protest their treatment. On the fourth day of this strike, Rohith died, gently asserting, in what Manash Bhattacharjee notes is the clarity of a suicide note, “Do not shed tears for me. I am happy dead than alive.”

Following the suicide and related media protests across India, the suspension of the other four Dalit students was reversed. Only proving Rohith’s suggestion, that his birth as a Dalit drove the harassment he faced; though not just that, but also the fact that he spoke up as a Dalit subject, as an activist, and he exercised his constitutional rights of free speech, because he thought he lived in a democracy. But he spoke up in a political climate that has become increasingly inhospitable to dissident voices, be they Muslim, Dalit, secularist, or feminist. His treatment violated the equality promised in our constitution, and his young life was lost needlessly, as Ananya Vajpeyi writes, “to our eternal shame.”

Rohith’s mother has rejected the state’s offered payment of INR 8,00,000 (US$ 11,838) as compensation for Rohith’s death. Given the withholding of the stipends that would have paid for food and living expenses, and driving him to suicide, this seems like a cruel joke. She demands that the politicians and officials involved be held accountable and responsible for driving him to this.

Rohit Venkatramakrishnan has written that Rohith’s death indicts us all. When death or the risk of death seems happier than life to a young student in Hyderabad, or Syria, or a young Buddhist monk in Tibet, we are looking at a deeply traumatic, and multi-layered historical experience of persistent cruelty, violence, dispossession, and dehumanization. Rohith’s death is an indictment not only of the society, but also of the state and its Delhi ministries, that failed to protect the dignity and human rights of some of India’s most vulnerable citizens. In 2016, this points to a crisis in caste relations, minority experience, and inequality in India that needs to be addressed now, by all of us.


(Photo Credit: The Indian Express)

Equality must be more than two white halves in adversarial balance

A few days ago, Bitch Media’s Megan Kearns pointed to the shortcomings of Patricia Arquette’s now infamous take on gender inequality, as she offered them on and behind the stage of the Oscar’s. Arquette’s idea that “It’s time for all the women in America and all the men who love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve fought for, to fight for us now” pissed Kearns off. I share her frustration. The growing online public conversation around gender equality and feminism may have become a more popular media topic the past years (which is a good thing), but since it’s mostly white self-proclaimed feminists who drive the discourse, the media carry the historical flaw of Western academic feminism’s widespread reluctance to take race, class or sexuality seriously right into the public sphere, popularizing a notion of ‘gender equality’ that is relevant to some and seriously harmful to others. As Kearns and others have already noted, not all women are middle class, white or straight. And the fight for real gender inequality, where LGBT people are actually treated as equals, and black women are paid and treated equal to white women, is far from won.

It’s not just the media and white feminists like Arquette who drive the idea that gender inequality is a matter of straight men versus straight women. Development organizations, such as the United Nations, play their own part in turning these un-nuanced notions into popular common sense. That’s a problem, particularly now that the UN mobilizes more and more celebrities, such as Victoria Beckham who believes girls should dress like girls, to get the word out.

The notion that the world’s main axis of inequality centers around sex is part of a larger and rapidly swelling discourse within the gender and development world, that frames the problem of gender inequality in a particular way: straight-men (and culture and tradition, of course) control and restrain straight women. A gender equal utopia from this point of view will emerge when straight men have been successfully convinced to stop controlling straight women. Essentially, this was the recently expressed position of UN Good Will Ambassador Emma Watson.

The UN is currently working on a new global development agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that sets the standards for development for the next fifteen years. “This is the century of women”, reads the 51st goals of the UN’s current version for the SDGs. “We will not realize our full potential if half of humanity continues to be held back”.

Patriarchy is real, yes. Compared to men, women carry the brunt of violence, yes. Nevertheless, the world isn’t just divided by sex, not all humans are straight and not all men are driven by an essential craving to own or control, or even kiss, a woman. Referring to women as the held-back ‘half of humanity’ in this way echoes Nicholas Kristof. He insists women are the held back half at the same time he wants us to cheer, twice even, for sweatshops and conceive women as unexploited resources. Kristof portrays men and women as simply monolithic, adversarial and heterosexual. He sees men and women, all men and all women, as inevitably divided by patriarchy. They are not. Problematic and oppressive gendered stereotypes are not just perpetuated by possessive heterosexual men, and they don’t just hurt ‘their’ women. Homophobia, Queerphobia, Lesbophobia and Transphobia are acted out by both men and women and need to be part of the conversation. Organizations like the UN have a lot of power to correct the flawed utopias of Kristof, Arquette and the like. The new development agenda can play a huge role here. So let’s watch this space.

(Photo Credit: Zanele Muholi / The Williams College Museum of Art)

Martyring the ‘Ballbreakers’

Shrine in memory of Tyli’a ‘NaNa Boo’ Mack

Last Wednesday, August 28th, residents of the 200 block of Q St. NW in Washington, DC were shocked by a brutal assault against two women, one of whom was killed.  Violence is nothing alien to DC, the District was once known as the ‘murder capital’ of the U.S., but this act stands out.  The motive, officially, is unknown.  The act occurred at 2:30 in the afternoon in broad daylight after the assailant had followed both women for several blocks and was exceptionally brutal. Tyli’a ‘NaNa Boo’ Mack was stabbed in throat; her injuries were fatal. The women involved were also both African-American, male-to-female transgender, were possibly been sex workers and there were supposedly several anti-LGBT epithets used by the assailant. The scene was also only a few blocks from a local transgender health center.  Yet, the motive is said to be unclear.

What is clear, other than that the attacker saw them as less than human, is that the media is not entirely sure how to talk about these women.  Different news outlets used several different ways of referring the Mack’s and the other victim’s gender.  A local television affiliate of Fox utilizes no uniform language at all.  Aside from one line mentioning that the victims were transgender women, the piece contains quotes utilizing exclusively male pronouns and refers to Mack by her birth name, Joshua, while focusing almost exclusively on the reactions of neighbors.  The focus is not on the victims but rather fear and the violent disruption of a normally tranquil area.  Coverage by the Washington Post, however, is a step worse.  The Post article refers to the women as transgender people and biological men living as women throughout the piece, again only referring to Mack by her birth name.  The writer, Paul Duggan, seems to be scraping for some shred of objectivity, but his own discomfort is readily apparent.  On the other end of the news spectrum, the Washington Blade, a local LGBT newspaper, utilizes Mack’s taken name and gender while focusing much more on what happened to these women, family’s and friends’ reactions and violence against transgender people more generally. All of these articles relate to the same incident but provide radically different information.  The kicker is that all of this criticism is possible after all of the articles, save Chibarro’s article in the Blade, had already been re-edited.  The original versions all referred to Mack and her friend as “transgender men”. News articles that blatantly disregard the gender identity of Mack and the other victim are no less policing than the act of violence itself.  One is simply more subtle, hiding behind science and journalistic integrity, and reinforces the fears that feed these acts of violence.

On the other side of the world, the media and science are policing gender more overtly.  Over the last couple of weeks, Caster Semenya has been ever-present in the international press, not because of her 800m win which would have garnered little attention in mainstream press, but because her sex was under scrutiny.  The media’s scrutiny and judgment of Semenya is more obvious perhaps because it is not tempered by a major act of violence.  But words are weapons and they feed already active fires that are raging against women outside of and within the LGBT community.  Semenya was required to take a gender test in order to be eligible to compete because she did ‘too well’ in recent competitions.  Such athleticism is not thought possible for women and Semenya’s muscular body was used as additional evidence to justify the testing.  The fact that she is a professional athlete and that most female athlete’s are muscular does not seem to dissuade the judging officials.

This case is disturbing and unsurprising for several reasons.  First, Semenya’s sex is called into question due to the combination of her athleticism and her apparently masculine or nonfeminine presentation and features.  The assumption is transparent; women are supposed to be soft, white and frail.  It is an assumption and argument that has been at the core of colonial politics and postcolonial politics.  There is actually not a chance in hell that Meadows would have been tested had she ran as well as Semenya did.  Second, Semenya’s family, like President Obama in a surprisingly parallel situation with the birthers, was able to furnish a birth certificate.  However, the documentation provided by a poorer black community in South Africa is apparently not reliable enough to be considered proof of the girl’s sex.  Would it have been has the runner come from a wealthy, Western and white family?  Third, the media has chosen to not only vilify and attempt to embarrass this young woman, but has likewise conflated several unrelated and yet entirely related issues: sex, gender and sexual orientation.  The latter two categories are not actually relevant to the IAAF’s argument of fairness.  The only thing they relate to is heteronormative notions of what it means to be a woman.

The results of Semenya’s test later revealed that she had 3 times the ‘normal’ female amount of testosterone in her system.  This was released on the same day as a BBC article claiming that high levels of testosterone turn women into “risk takers” and “ballbreakers”.  The implication is that ‘masculine’ women are practically not even women and that only masculinity can and should be able to compete in our society. Thus, by questioning her sex so publicly and utilizing gossip and conjecture as evidence, the media has placed Semenya on the 21st century’s version of the pillory.  She is meant to be an example for all young girls, especially if they are darker skinned and athletic, of what they can’t be: strong. In the same way, Tyli’a Mack was publicly murdered to warn against those born male being anything other than hypermasculine.

Caster Semenya

(Photo Credit 1: Washington’s Other Monuments) (Photo Credit 2: John Giles / PA / The Guardian)